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NPR Series Highlights Need to Strengthen Rental Assistance

April 5, 2016 at 5:00 PM

NPR’s recent series Staving off Eviction highlights the looming threat of eviction for many low-income renters, providing powerful evidence of the need to strengthen federal rental assistance

The series follows mothers with children who struggle every month to keep up with the rent while also paying for utilities, food, and other necessities.  One hiccup, like a cut in hours at a low-wage job, can mean a missed payment and a date in eviction court.  Families that complain about bad housing conditions or withhold rent to try to get the landlord to fix problems risk receiving an eviction notice in response.

The series echoes the stories in Matthew Desmond’s new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which explains how the eviction epidemic is driving many poor families deeper into poverty.  After eviction, families often end up in homeless shelters, extremely poor quality housing, or dangerous neighborhoods or must move frequently among homes of family and friends — all of which can have long-term negative effects on children (see here and here).

These problems reflect two facts: more families are struggling to afford rent, and there isn’t enough assistance to close the gap between what families earn and the rent they must pay.   The number of families with “worst-case housing needs” — meaning they have incomes below half of the local median, receive no housing assistance, and spend over half their income on rent or live in severely substandard housing — rose from 5.9 million to 7.7 million between 2007 and 2013 (see chart).  

Rental assistance like Housing Choice Vouchers helps families pay rent, but only 1 in 4 families that need it actually receive it due to funding limitations.

Congress can help more families get stable housing by meeting the President’s request to fund an additional 10,000 Housing Choice Vouchers for homeless families with children next year.  That would be an important first step, but further progress to reduce evictions and homelessness would require bigger steps, such as making housing vouchers available to all eligible households or creating a renters’ tax credit, as we have proposed

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